On June 15, 1920, police arrest several young black men accused of raping a white woman. That evening, three of them – Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie – are taken from jail by a mob and lynched.
The Circus Comes to Town
It was the John Robinson Circus that brought Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie to Duluth. They and other young black men were employed by the circus as cooks and “roustabouts,” laborers who performed a variety of physical tasks. Traveling by train, the circus was greeted by an eager crowd upon arrival in Duluth. They were in town for a free street parade and one day of performances on June 14, 1920.
On the warm summer night of June 14, Irene Tusken, age nineteen, and James Sullivan, eighteen, went to the circus in Duluth. At the end of the evening the pair walked to the rear of the main tent. Nobody is sure of what happened next, but in the early morning of June 15th, Duluth Police Chief John Murphy received a call from James Sullivan’s father saying six black circus workers had held the pair at gunpoint and then raped Irene Tusken. Little evidence would be found to corroborate these claims. An examination of Tusken that morning by Dr. David Graham, a family physician, showed no physical signs of rape or assault.
Six black men were immediately arrested by the Duluth Police and held in the Duluth city jail, located inside the police station on the corner of Second Avenue and Superior Street. Already reported in the local newspaper, news of the alleged rape spread rapidly. That evening a white mob estimated between 1,000 and 10,000 people gathered on Superior Street outside the police station. They met little resistance from the police, who had been ordered not to use their guns.
Wielding bricks, rails, and heavy timbers, the mob forced its way into the jail, tearing down doors and breaking windows. They pulled all six black men from their cells. After a hasty mock trial, Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie were declared guilty and taken one block to a light pole on the corner of First Street and Second Avenue East. A few tried to dissuade the mob, but their pleas were in vain. The three men were beaten and then lynched, first Isaac McGhie, then Elmer Jackson, and lastly Elias Clayton.
The Minnesota National Guard arrived the next morning to secure Duluth and protect the three surviving black prisoners. These prisoners, along with ten additional black suspects from the circus, were moved under heavy guard to the St. Louis County jail.
Though the city’s streets were now calm, not everyone felt safe. Black residents stayed inside and locked their doors, fearful of further violence.
Outrage and Shock
The lynchings made headlines in newspapers throughout the country. Many were shocked such an atrocity happened in Minnesota, a northern state. The Chicago Evening Post opined, “This is a crime of a Northern state, as black and ugly as any that has brought the South in disrepute. The Duluth authorities stand condemned in the eyes of the nation.”1 An article in the Minneapolis Journal accused the lynch mob of putting “an effaceable stain on the name of Minnesota,” stating, “The sudden flaming up of racial passion, which is the reproach of the South, may also occur, as we now learn in the bitterness of humiliation in Minnesota.” 2
Many citizens of Duluth were similarly outraged. Dentist Milton W. Judy, a prominent black Duluthian wrote, “Duluth has suffered a horrible disgrace, a blot on its name that it can never outlive.”3 Clergymen, including Reverend William M. Majors of St. Marks A.M.E., an important institution of the city’s black community, spoke out against the lynchings, calling for the severe punishment of the mob members. The Duluth Rip-Saw strongly condemned the lynchings, advocating the “thorough house-cleaning” and “elimination of every yellow member” of the police department who had failed to protect the black men from the mob.4
Not everyone expressed regret. Despite lacking evidence, some believed Irene Tusken was raped and that the three victims, although never tried in court, were guilty and deserving of their fate. The Ely Miner, of nearby Ely, Minnesota claimed “while the thing was wrong in principle, it was most effective and those who were put out of their criminal existence by the mob will not assault any more young girls.”5 The Mankato Daily Free Press, referring to the three black men as “beasts in human shape,” asserted the triple lynching was advantageous to a fair trial: “Mad dogs are shot dead without ceremony. Beasts in human shape are entitled to but scant consideration. The law gives them by far too much of an advantage.”6
In Superior, Wisconsin, just across the bay, the Acting Chief of Police declared, “We are going to run all idle negroes out of Superior and they’re going to stay out.”7 How many were forced out is not certain, but all of the black men employed by a carnival in Superior were fired and told to leave the city.
- Chicago Evening Post quoted in “Minnesota’s Disgrace,” The Appeal (St. Paul, Minn), 19 June 1920, p 2.
- “The Duluth Disgrace,” Minneapolis Journal, 17 June 1920, p. 18.
- “Duluth’s Sad Experiment,” National Advocate (Minneapolis, Minn), 3 July 1920, p. 1.
- “The City’s Shame,” The Duluth Ripsaw, 26 June 1920, p. 2.
- Ely Miner, 18 June 1920, p. 4.
- “The Duluth Tragedy,” Mankato Daily Free Press, 17 June 1920, p. 6.
- “Superior Police to Deport Idle Negroes At Once,” Duluth News Tribune, 17 June 1920, p. 1.